washingtonpost.com
Police Often Close Cases Without Arrest
Tactic Improves Key Statistic but Leaves Victims' Families With Questions

By Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 4, 2000

Three days after Christmas in 1995, a Chevy Camaro holding Chauncey Dillard and his cousin Reginald Palmer was sprayed with bullets on Montana Street in Northeast. At Washington Hospital Center, Dillard told his mother and a D.C. police detective who did it. Then he died in surgery.

"He gave up those names in the operating room," Detective Phineas Young said in a recent interview.

Dillard's mother believed his dying declaration would allow police to solve the case quickly. But it remained open for nearly two years, until one of the suspects Dillard named was killed. Then police closed the case "administratively"--attributing the killing to the dead suspect and "solving" the investigation without an arrest.

A Washington Post examination shows that the department's homicide clearance rate, the measure by which detectives are judged, is increasingly bolstered by such administrative closures. The proportion of homicides closed by arrest has dropped while the rate of administrative closures has risen, according to D.C. police records and Post analysis. Among cases that occurred between 1988 and 1990, a Post study in 1993 found that 10 percent of the cases closed were done so administratively; The Post recently looked at 1997 homicides and found that rate had risen to 18 percent.

Under General Order 304.1, D.C. police are allowed to close cases administratively under specific circumstances: a suspect is dead or commits suicide; two people kill each other; a dying suspect confesses; a suspect is already in prison or being prosecuted; or a suspect is in a country where extradition is not allowed.

But the very nature of administrative closures--they are made with evidence that is never tested in court--raises questions about their proliferation in recent years.

The Post study also found an increase in the rate of cases closed administratively with suspects who were dead. A look at 100 homicides closed without an arrest between 1996 and 1999 found more than 50 that were pinned on dead suspects. Eleven of the cases languished for years with little or no follow-up, only to be closed within days or weeks of a suspect's death. Some cases contained no records explaining why the case was closed.

"It's too easy to blame it on a dead guy," said William L. Hennessy, a retired D.C. police captain who commanded the homicide unit from 1993 to 1995. "We owe it to the community to make sure we're locking up the right guy. I didn't like closing cases 304.1."

The rise in the rate of administrative closures comes at a time when hundreds of D.C. homicide cases are missing and many closed cases lack proper documentation, a long-standing problem. A review of cases ordered by Ramsey in response to a Post records request found that 98 administrative closures between 1994 and 1999 were "properly closed" but said that seven others should be reopened. Still, hundreds of other cases were incomplete or could not be located. Among those cases are dozens of administrative closures.

A report known as a "252," which lays out the basis for a closure, is required to clear a case administratively. But The Post found that 29 of the 100 cases it examined lacked the 252 report, making it difficult to determine if justice was done. In dozens of cases, detectives failed to contact the victims' family members to tell them that the case had been cleared without an arrest, robbing relatives of a sense of closure.

"They closed the case?" asked Mamie Jones, whose son, Reginald, was killed in February 1994. "They never told me."

Her son's case was closed administratively in January 1996, but she did not find out until an interview with a Post reporter this summer.

In some cases, even the detectives involved were unaware that the case had been closed without an arrest.

"When did that get closed?" Detective Young responded after a Post reporter told him what had happened to the Dillard case. "I remember working on the case for the first couple of days, but after that I went back to investigate other cases."

In the case of Dillard and Palmer, there appeared to be lots of solid leads. Police had the nickname of the shooter from Dillard. They had the names of his associates. Police also had a source who told them less than a month after the shooting that he had been inside the gunman's apartment and had seen the guns used in the slayings, department records show.

"Here's a person who tells you who shot him, and they do nothing," said Palmer's mother, who asked that her name not be used. "The person on the case did nothing. Not a note. Not a letter. Not a phone call, and that in itself is deplorable. My grandson could do better investigating than they did, and he's 7."

Detective Young told The Post, "I know we developed a suspect, but I don't think we ever had an eyewitness." He said cases were backed up around Christmas in 1995, when he had his hospital interview with Dillard. Young said Jeff Williams was the lead detective and should have kept the family informed. Detective Williams said in a brief telephone interview that he didn't know whether he had closed the case. "I'm not going to talk about this," he said.

The victims whose deaths were later blamed on dead suspects include:

* Reginald Dallas Jones, 43, who was gunned down Feb. 27, 1994, in Southeast.

On Jan. 23, 1996, Troy Lewis was shot to death. Eleven days later, police closed the Jones case, naming Lewis as the killer. The case file contained no witness statements other than that of the officer who responded to the scene. Nor does it include an explanation of why police thought Lewis was the killer.

* Tyrone Thomas, 17, who was fatally shot April 15, 1992, in Northeast.

Mark Rosebure was killed Jan. 1, 1997. Thirteen days later, police closed the Thomas case, saying Rosebure was the triggerman. The case file contains no witness statements, no firearms report and no report explaining why the case was closed.

* Ronald Gathers, 36, who was shot 14 times on Sept. 21, 1992, as he sat outside drinking beer with two other men in Southeast.

In January 1994, an eyewitness identified Gathers's killer from a photo lineup. The case sat for four years until it was reassigned to a homicide task force. Within months, investigators closed the Gathers case after they learned the suspect from the photo lineup had been killed on Dec. 11, 1994.

* Darnell "Diamond" Williams, 24, who was shot several times on Sept. 11, 1995, in Northwest.

Police developed two witnesses within three months and typed up an arrest warrant for Quentin L. "Vern Vern" Smith. But Smith was never charged and the file does not explain why. On May 11, 1997, Smith was shot and killed. Three days later, police blamed the Williams killing on Smith and closed the case administratively.

V.I. Smith, a retired D.C. homicide detective who was considered one of the best by his colleagues, was stunned to learn that the department has closed scores of homicides with dead suspects.

"I never closed a homicide [administratively], and I was there nine years," Smith said. "The danger is you close a case but suppose you're wrong."

A Five-Time Killer

The relatives of Garlan Baskerville say they believe the police are wrong in his case. Baskerville grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Oxon Hill, but he got into trouble at school and eventually dropped out. The 21-year-old son of a retired D.C. schoolteacher was shot to death at 11:55 p.m. on July 5, 1996, as he sat in a car with friends in front of 725 Seventh St. NE.

Within a month, police pinned four killings on Baskerville. Two months later, they added a fifth.

"They'll pin it on anybody just to say they closed a case," Baskerville's sister said when told by a reporter that police named her dead brother a five-time killer. "If they had solid evidence, why didn't they arrest him at the time?"

The death of Baskerville was a windfall for D.C. police homicide detectives, but no one issued a press release announcing it and no one informed the victims' families.

The Post requested the five files closed after Baskerville's death and was told by police that one of them--the killing of Troy Craney--is still open, even though the U.S. attorney's office and a police database list it as closed. The other four cases contain very little information linking Baskerville to the crimes.

Only one of the cases--the killing of Steven Frederick--contains the 252 report required to close a case.

The sketchy report only states that a "witness was founded, and this witness identified" Baskerville's mug shot in a photo lineup.

Detective Joe Fox insisted Garlan Baskerville was the killer.

"We had some witnesses who gave up the information but were afraid to come to court for their own safety," said Fox, a veteran detective. "Then we got another person, a close associate of Baskerville's, who gave up information. But for the life of me, I can't tell you how we got the [witness] in here."

Detective Jeff Mayberry, who investigated the Frederick slaying with Fox, said, "If I remember right, and I'm not sure, we were in the process of getting ready to get a warrant for [Baskerville]. It's unfortunate we weren't able to bring him before a jury of his peers."

The other three cases blamed on Baskerville contain no documents indicating how the killings were closed:

* Cornelius McDonald, 22, was shot in the right side of the head as he stood on a street corner in Northeast in March 1993.

Carl Gregory, the original detective on the case, said the case was turned over to the cold-case squad because he "didn't have time to work a case for six months."

He does not recall what happened to the case.

* Daron Ford, 19, was gunned down in an alley in Northeast on a snowy December afternoon just two weeks before Christmas 1995.

His blood-stained Eddie Bauer parka was found next to him. Police believed that the killing was drug related and that two suspects were involved, records show. But the file was closed on Baskerville alone.

* Torre's Crawford, 19, was killed outside his aunt's house in Northeast in September 1995. Fifteen minutes earlier, he had called his mother, Frances, to ask her to cook his favorite chicken wings. He would bring the soda, he promised.

Crawford's mother stayed on the line to chat with her sister and heard three loud pops. Her sister thought it was a car backfiring. Crawford knew it was gunfire.

"My sister said, 'There's someone laying on my front steps,' " Crawford recalled. "I told her to go and see who it was and that I would hang on."

Minutes passed. Crawford's heart raced. She hung up and called her sister's next-door neighbor. Torre's had been shot, Frances was told.

"When I got there, I saw the police tape and the body," she said. "I knew it was him."

One of the detectives at the scene handed Crawford a Ziploc bag. It contained her son's belongings: $82, Chapstick, a pager and a gold chain and cross that she had given him for his 19th birthday seven months earlier.

Frances Crawford was shocked when she learned from a reporter that Baskerville was the person police said killed her son.

"I heard on the street that . . . an associate of [drug kingpin] Rayful Edmunds was charged with Torre's murder, but he's already in prison on other stuff," Crawford said. "I never heard of Garlan Baskerville."

Suspects, But No Arrests

The Post found another pattern in D.C. homicide files: inexplicable instances when police identified a suspect but made no arrest, only to act quickly to close the case after the suspect died.

Donald Lee Graham, 31, was shot seven times in the back of the head and several times in the back in October 1996 on Clifton Street NW. A police officer was driving by, heard the shots and saw a man shooting downward between two cars. The police file does not say why the officer did not pursue the man.

A witness told police that a man named Garfield Jones said he had killed Graham and gave her a bag holding two guns. The witness was given a voice-stress analysis test; a detective said she answered truthfully. Another witness picked out Jones from a photo spread.

But police never arrested Jones. The file contains no explanation. He remained on the streets for nine months until he was fatally shot in August 1997. Three days later, police blamed Jones for killing Graham and closed the case.

Detective Gregory Archer, who was assigned to the case, said in a recent interview that he knew Jones was the gunman but couldn't explain why police didn't go after him while he was alive.

"I remember the shooting because I was there that night," said Archer, who retired from the force in 1998, then returned as a senior police officer assigned to recruiting.

Jones "was identified as the shooter, a well-known shooter in that area," Archer said. "Probably, more than likely, there was not enough probable cause or not enough witnesses" to make an arrest.

When told by a reporter that police records show that at least two witnesses positively identified Jones as Graham's killer, Archer said he "can't answer" why Jones wasn't arrested.

"It didn't happen on my watch," he said. "I didn't close that case. If I had all that information, I would have applied for a warrant. I would have been looking for Garfield."

Without Merit

In addition to clearing files with dead suspects, D.C. homicide detectives close cases administratively without an arrest after the U.S. attorney's office declines prosecution.

This allows police to count a case as cleared, even though prosecutors have rejected it for "lack of prosecutive merit."

Officials in several police jurisdictions told The Post that they do not close cases this way. Said Miami-Dade Police Sgt. Gary Smith, "If our state attorney's office decides there's not enough evidence to prosecute, we don't close those cases. We leave them open."

The case of Robert Neil Foster provides an example of how D.C. police were able to turn rejection from prosecutors into a successful statistic.

Foster was a former Army sergeant from a tiny South Carolina town who came to Washington after his 1984 discharge. On Dec. 3, 1993, the eve of his 37th birthday, Foster was shot three times in the head and once in the back outside a drug house on W Street SE.

For years, the case apparently sat uninvestigated--no updates were entered into the file after February 1994. Four years later, police interviewed a witness who identified Timothy Smith from a photo spread as Foster's killer.

A second witness was interviewed and told police that immediately after the slaying, Smith admitted killing Foster. The witness also picked Smith from a photo spread.

Despite the two witness statements, police never charged Smith. The U.S. attorney's office declined to prosecute Smith.

The police closed the case and counted it as a homicide clearance.

Four months earlier--in a Sept. 30, 1997, memo--the new homicide commander, Alfred Broadbent, had written: "In the event the Assistant U.S. Attorney declines to prosecute, a general statement that the case lacks prosecutive merit shall not be acceptable for closing the case."

The Foster case file refers to a U.S. attorney memo that apparently lays out the grounds for refusing the case. D.C. police told The Post it would have to get the memo from the prosecutor who wrote it. The U.S. attorney's office said it could not find the memo and does not know who the prosecutor is.

Circumstances suggest that the Foster case was dropped because the suspect, Smith, was already being prosecuted in a second homicide. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter in November 1997 in the 1992 death of Stephen P. Jones.

Prosecutors are allowed to use their discretion when they are prosecuting a defendant who faces multiple charges. They sometimes argue that it is a waste of taxpayer money to try someone who already faces a long prison term.

But that is not the case with Smith.

Now serving a five- to 15-year sentence, he is eligible for parole on Oct. 26, 2006. He will be 36 years old.

No Peace for Families

A murder is a very public event, with a body, yellow police tape, distraught relatives, sometimes TV cameras.

An arrest gives the relatives of the dead a sense of peace, of justice being done. But a case closed administratively without an arrest enters an official void. It is a statistic, but it is most certainly not a public airing.

And for relatives it offers no sense of peace or justice.

Such is the case with Wilhelmina Matthews, whose 19-year-old son, Tony, a security guard, was killed five years ago.

In July 1997, a detective told Matthews that the case was closed and the suspect was dead.

On a warm day last summer, Wilhelmina Matthews bent over and brushed blades of grass and specks of dirt from Tony's headstone atop a hill at National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover. Usually, she brings a bottle of water and a rag to keep the marker shiny.

"It's really hard when I look down," said Matthews, who continues to see a therapist for help in dealing with her son's death.

The pain still bites, despite the passage of time. His mother said the person responsible for Matthews's killing erroneously believed that he was the getaway driver in a shootout at a Southeast housing project. Although Tony knew the youths, his mother said he was not involved.

On Sept. 8, 1995, Tony's aunt, Ardell Payne, was going to help Tony with a dead car battery when she rounded a corner and saw a foot sticking out of his car. She thought her nephew was reaching for something.

"Then I saw him," she recalled. "He was slumped over."

He had been shot once in the head. A stranger in the crowd that had gathered handed Payne a towel to put under his bleeding head. She rested his head in her lap. "Hold on," she whispered. "Hold on."

Across town, Wilhelmina Matthews received a message from police to go to the 7th District station--they were holding someone named Matthews. Then she got a second call: Go to D.C. General Hospital. They said only that her son had been "injured," she said later. She arrived just as the doctor was telling the boy's father, aunt and cousins that Tony had died.

"No one ever said there had been a shooting," Wilhelmina Matthews recalled.

Two detectives arrived, expressed their sympathy and told Matthews they would get back to her.

"The police were given some leads because a friend of my nephew's came forward six months after Tony's death and gave a name of the shooter," Payne said. "I thought they would close the case quickly."

But 22 months passed before the police called to say that the case had been closed administratively. A homicide database that police provided to The Post lists no suspect in the Matthews slaying. The case file contains no 252 report explaining how the case was closed.

A document in the closed homicide file obtained by The Post contains a numeric reference indicating that a witness picked someone out of a photo lineup: Anthony Howard, 21, who was killed on Sept. 2, 1996. The case was closed 10 months later.

For Wilhelmina Matthews, there is only a pervasive sense of loss, all the things missing that should be there.

After Tony's death, the police impounded his car and kept his wallet, cell phone, pager and a gold chain with a cross given to him by his aunt. Evidence, they said.

When Matthews tried to retrieve the items after the case was closed, she said police told her they couldn't find them.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company